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Posts Tagged ‘hard work’

The Third Rail Of American Discourse

In behavior, books, business, journalism, news, women, work on June 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm

My new book about working for 27 months as a retail sales associate has been out for two months, and the 40+ amazon reviews are insane — love it, hate it, love it, loathe it.

I’ve been called a princess, racist, slummer, bitter, pretentious, “lazy, lazy, lazy”, elitist and accused, falsely, of despising the very people — my retail co-workers — I say clearly how much I admired.

It’s been an exhausting rollercoaster, with a pendulum of opinion swinging so widely, and wildly, it’s hard to believe.

It took a fellow writer to calm me down, pointing out that “Nickeled and Dimed“, a best-seller from 2001 by Barbara Ehrenreich (to which my book has been compared) is equally provocative and divisive.

Both books are similar in one key respect: middle-class, educated white women — with economic freedom to leave the jobs we described — worked for minimum wage in thankless, difficult, demanding low-status jobs.

Our crime in so doing? Poverty tourism. Slumming it for a book deal, as one WNYC listener commented. We weren’t destitute.

Why did we need to be?

Would this have altered our observations or the accuracy of what we saw and heard?

We’re writers and our goals were the same: find and tell powerful stories that had not been told. The people living these lives, working these jobs, do not have the time, skill or freedom from the shackles of their jobs to tell it as it really is.

I’ve also received extraordinarily personal and heartfelt emails almost every single day since” Malled” appeared:

“Have you been sitting on my shoulder for 23 years?”

“I feel bolstered by your book!”

“I got a raise last year….of 10 cents an hour.”

The filthy secret of American life is economic disparity, the great myth that we are all equal and racing one another along a smooth and level playing field to the equally-accessible goodies of income/home/education/raises/promotions/career success.

Go to college! Work hard! Suck up to your boss! That’ll do it.

Nope.

The reality is that there is no level playing field. It looks more like a greasy pole, the rich at the top, the poor at the bottom and many of us now, four years into a recession filled with record corporate profits and sluggish hiring, scrambling desperately in between.

Here’s a sobering piece in Mother Jones on how much dough corporations are raking in, and how workers aren’t getting the benefit of their labor.

I think speaking truth to power, despite its putative appeal, makes Americans deeply queasy. What if I somehow wrecked your chances, or your kids’, by being rude to the Guys With The Money?

Bowing and scraping to anyone with a payroll is the new black.

I worked for The North Face, owned by the VF Corporation; in January 2009, our hours were cut because the company could not afford them…then sitting on $382 million in cash. (They just spent it to buy Timberland.)

Look at the WalMart class action lawsuit, thrown out this week, screwing thousands of hardworking women employees out of the hope of justice. Of working a full-time job and not needing food stamps to supplement their wages.

Which is worse — ignoring these behaviors and letting business reporters keep fawning over eight-figure-earning CEOs?

Or have people like me or Ehrenreich try our best to open the door to the creepy, greedy, nasty behaviors that drive so much of this economy?

Either way, millions of workers are being screwed.


You Call That Hard Work?

In behavior, books, business, journalism, life, Money, photography, television, the military, work on June 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm
“]Cover of "Gorky Park [Region 2]"

We watched the terrific 1983 movie “Gorky Park” on the weekend.

In it, a young and handsome William Hurt, playing a Moscow cop, decides to reconstruct the facial features of two murder victims. In order to do so, he has the coroner (of course!) saw off their heads, which he then transports in two plain cardboard boxes tied with string.

Hm.

Carting about severed heads strikes me as a fairly tough day at the office….

Journalists’ jobs often throw them into bizarre and dangerous situations. You never really know what to expect when you work at a newspaper or wire service: might be a plane crash, the aftermath of a hurricane or another lying politician weeping to the cameras about his mistakes.

You learn to keep a fresh shirt and tie in your desk drawer and women, depending what sort of stories they’re covering, learn to wear flats and clothing you can run, squat and even climb in comfortably. (Yes, that would rule out pencil skirts and stilettos.) You discover that ink freezes taking notes in sub-zero temperatures.

The sweetie faced a much tougher gig than I — six weeks in Bosnia at Christmas, alone, shooting photos for The New York Times. He slept in an unheated cargo container, almost died in a snowdrift at dusk and ate a cup of dried chicken soup as his holiday meal. Like a soldier, he slept in his long underwear for weeks. Showers were rare.

My toughest? I’ve had a few, more emotionally draining than physically demanding or frightening. Sent on a midtown stake-out, I had to stalk a Quebecoise tourist who’d been stabbed in the ass (welcome to New York) — because I was the only Daily News reporter who spoke French. I hated chasing her around a local deli asking questions as much as she resented the intrusion on her privacy.

In Montreal, the night before I took my driving test, I had to cover a horrific car-bus head-on collision, the car’s windows sheeted with blood.

In Winnipeg, interviewing a woman whose life had been turned upside down by a terrible drug side effect meant watching her shake and cry, her Parkinsons’ disease aggravated by the very stress of talking to me about her nightmare. I felt like a demon. It was the only way to get the story.

Here’s the classic whine, “Money for Nothing” from Dire Straits:

Now look at them yo-yo’s that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free
Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain’t dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

What’s the hardest thing you ever did and got paid for?

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